Monday, 21 July 2014

The Oppressor should be Criticised more than the Oppressed

Mrs M (Bev) and I have been having some ongoing social media debates with people about the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. There have been points when we have wanted to give up on this conversation only to find our passion revived by scenes of more children being harmed.

Most, all though not all, of those arguing against our position are from what might be called the conservative evangelical end of the church. We have continually maintained that we are primarily neither pro-Israel nor pro-Palestinian but pro-peace: as such we have tried to condemn violence when we see it. It seems that many of those who find offence at our words keep misreading us and presuming that we are anti-Israel.

Our main point is that as followers of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, we cannot stay silent whilst we see people being oppressed and killed.

The main arguments we have received could be categorised as follows:

1) Israel is God's chosen nation therefore we should support them. The reasoning seems to be that what is taking place is part of an end time scenario and that to criticise Israel we are siding with Satan who wants to see them destroyed.

2) Israel is only protecting their borders and have the right to do so.

3) Hamas are causing the violence - even using children to protect their missiles.

4) Israel give plenty of warning to the Palestinians before bombing their homes and hospitals.

5) The land was stolen from the Jews 1878 years ago and so is rightfully theirs.

Now there are many arguments I could raise here but I want to offer a point that I feel is often missed in dealing with such complicated situations, namely: the direction of the criticism.

It is not difficult to see a theme running through the bible suggesting that those in positions of power have greater responsibility than those being oppressed. The people might have rebelled against God but it was Moses who was not allowed to enter the promised land. Time and again we see the prophets warning the nation about their attitudes to the needy. Jesus' response to the scribes and Pharisees displays a different approach to his compassion for the crowds and individuals caught in sin and the mess of life.

Church leaders might be worthy of double honour but there is greater call for them to live in ways that reflect the holiness of Christ.

In this we get a sense that the judgements we make are linked to the position held by those choose to critique.

Now added to this is a continuing confusion that the evangelical church has between our understanding of sin and the nature of evil. It has probably served evangelistic campaigns well to suggest that cheating on a high school exam leads to the same level of damnation as would the destruction of a whole people group. This is both a misunderstanding and a dangerous mistake.

Sin is essentially a moment, or a path, of missing the mark that is set by a particular ideology. For the Christian it would be anything that would not be in keeping with being a disciple of Christ. Some of these things will be universal for all Christians and some might be at a personal level and linked to our own daily walk of faith.

It needs to be said that sin is undoubtably the fuel that produces evil but they should not be too easily conflated. We see that the bible speaks of some things as being more detestable than others. Jesus indicates such when he suggest that it would be preferable to have a millstone around ones neck than to cause a child to stumble. The one-size fits all model of soteriology does not always easily translate when discussing the nature of evil and the need for judgement.

This is important because when it comes to critiquing acts of violence it is all too easy to fall into a similar 'one-size fits all' mentality. We need to see, however, that the violence of an oppressor is not the same as the reactive violence of a vulnerable person.

As followers of Christ we can offer a critique to both in the context of our theological musings but the reality is that it is the oppressor that is involved in an act of evil not necessarily the oppressed.

With regard to the nature of the Israeli-Palestine conflict we can see a similar pattern appearing. The Palestinian people have been repeatedly oppressed by Israeli occupation. In fact it would be unusual if some of this community didn't respond in a violent way. The Israelis and their supporters (in particular my own government here in the UK) continually speak in tones that suggest they are simply defending their borders. The truth is more sinister. Evil is at play and it didn't start with the evil of a Hamas rocket. It began with the oppressive culture imposed upon a people by a nation that would do well to hear the echoes of its own people's history and know better.

So will I condemn the rockets being fired from Gaza: Yes. Will I consider that some of the more militant Palestinians are guilty of treating some of their people as commodities toward their own political ends; Possibly. But will I speak of the Palestinians as being equally as guilty of evil as the Israeli government: No.

As Christ followers we have a responsibility to be salt and light in offering an alternative way of peace in every place we find ourselves. We must not, however, allow ourselves to be fooled into thinking that situations like the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict are a level playing field.

Those in positions of greater power have the resources to make the greatest steps forward towards peace. When they do not chose to do so they are worthy of a greater criticism than those who are subject to oppression. Our voices need to be louder in speaking out against the powerful. The 'first shall be last' model of the kingdom of God demands that we do not stay silent: in fact it may even suggest that at times we deliberately side with the subjugated in opposition to those who have the resources to work for peace but refuse to do so.

So if you want to tell me to be quiet because Israel is God's chosen nation I will ask you what it is he has chosen them to do and remind you of Isaiah 49:6 that says: 'I will give you as a light to the nations that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.'

If you want to show me examples of Hamas committing atrocities I will join you in condemning them as acts of evil but I will ask you to consider who created the culture that allowed such people to be radicalised.

Or if you want to tell me that the land was stolen from the Jews 1878 years ago I will ask you to offer that same principle to the people of the USA and suggest they give it back to the native Americans or that the Australians should return ownership to the aborigines. Indeed the British Isles would not belong to Norman stock like my own family. See how far you get with that idea.

Those with much power have much responsibility. When they use their power for ill the church needs to hold them to account and not suggest that they are only as guilty as those they oppress.

Try and convince me that that the nation of Israel is acting as a light to the nations in killing Palestinian children and I will suggest you might have misunderstood both the nature of evil and the holiness of light.



  1. Without condoning Israeli violence here, I would want to suggest that, given 2000 years of largely antisemitic Gentile history, perhaps the Church is not best placed to hold Israel to account on the way that so many seem to want to do. If we want to ask who created the oppressive culture in the first place, "Christian" Europe perhaps bears more responsibility than most with its contribution to a Jewish siege mentality. This mentality was exacerbated in the early days of the Israeli state by the threats of surrounding states to throw it into the sea.
    In Britain, we bear the additional responsibility of having at one time promised the same (contradictory) thing to both Jews and Arabs, leaving a sense of abandonment and betrayal on both sides.
    IMO the Christian calling is not to sit in judgement on one side or the other (which we are ill placed to do) but to do what we can to bring about reconciliation where possible.

  2. Hi Simon. There is little to disagree with in what you have said. Thank you.
    I agree that Britain and Christianity has been woeful. My concern in this blog is the way that the evangelical church are tending to defend Israel's current actions.

    1) What did I write that suggested my aim was not reconciliation?

    2) I would add that working for reconciliation cannot be a passive act - in that we may well have to momentarily 'side' with the oppressed: whilst acknowledging that the oppressed can son become the oppressor.

    3) For me this is not primarily about being a Christian but being a human being. The Christian context of this current blog is due to the irrational support I have seen from the church for Israel.

    I hope that clarifies. Thank you so much for taking the time to comment. Al

    1. Thanks, Alan. I suspect that we are actually not too far apart on this issue, though I think we do disagree over means. I am increasingly concerned about the polarisation this issue causes within the Church. I do not wish to defend much of Israel's recent action, nor do I wish to join in with the irrational support. But I do recognise a context where the State of Israel has had to defend itself from severe political and military pressure from Day 1.

      Part of that context has been caused by past "Christian" action, and I fear that I see in *some* Christian criticism of Israel a return to a kind of antisemitism I had hoped we had gone beyond. I believe that even milder critique can (in some cases, justifiably) be perceived by many Jewish people as the Church pursuing the centuries-old line and teaching of contempt.

      We are agreed that reconciliation is not a passive act. It involves careful relationship-building across the divide, as people like Canon Andrew White well know from this and other contexts. This can be especially difficult in this particular context where it can be really, really difficult to disentangle fact from fiction, truth from propaganda in the conflicting narratives. And here I think we need to acknowledge the vulnerability felt by both sides, even though it may seem to us that Israel is so much stronger in terms of armaments and organisation - it hasn't always been so. This is a very complex situation, which too many are trying over-simplify.

  3. Thank you Simon.

    I would just add three things from your comments - and here I acknowledge that where you start the story matters.

    1) I think it can be a little dangerous to use the anti-Semitic card. I agree that we should repent of this when we see it in our nations. Here however the Israelis are committing war crimes (see. Christian Aid and others).

    2) Israel is the 4th largest military power in the world. In my opinion that gives the a greater responsibility.

    3) Christians must speak for peace - that includes criticism of both sides. But as I have indicated above the criticism needs to be in proportion to the power base of each group.

    It is indeed a complicated situation but that doesn't mean a simple and continued call for peace should not continue.

  4. Thank you again, Alan, In response I would also wish to add:

    1) While I agree that it can be dangerous to "use the anti-Semitic card", I believe it is equally if not more dangerous not to acknowledge it as a historical reality which has a continuing significance and influence today. I get as concerned when Israel seems to become demonised as I do when some sections of the church give Israel unconditional support even in the face of apparent war crimes.
    2) How is this status as "4th largest military power in the world" calculated? By numbers in uniform? By military spending? By "quality" of equipment? And is this in absolute or per capita terms? I see this claim being made in various places, but not the evidence to support it.
    3) Yes. We agree Christians must speak and work for peace. But we don't come at this from the position of disinterested outsiders. Historically we have been part of the process that has led up to all this. This doesn't mean we allow our past mistakes to paralyse us, but it does mean we should reflect carefully in our speaking and acting so that we can contribute towards genuine reconciliation.